Despite the apparently strong government financial aid they receive, most university students in Finland have to work to support themselves. Statistics from the Eurostudent Project indicate that, on average, state support provides students with about 40% of their personal income needs, 18% comes from parents or spouses and 42% by way of paid employment - but 12% of the state support must be repaid.
"Finland's system for supporting university students is among the best in the world but it isn't perfect," said Camilla Elander of the University of Helsinki in a presentation at the Retention 2009 conference held by the Education Policy Institute in New Orleans last month. "Not only do Finnish university students pay no tuition fees, they also receive a range of welfare payments and subsidies, and automatic access to government-provided low interest loans."
The Finnish government's largesse was in contrast to the niggardly student support policies familiar to most of the audience, drawn mainly from the US and Canada, with a few Australians and Europeans to add an international air.
Finland is a nation that excels in international comparisons relating to education, and education at all levels has always been held in high esteem by Finnish society. Finland regularly tops the OECD's assessment of secondary school standards in the internationally standardised Programme for International Student Assessment, jointly developed by participating countries and administered to 15-year-olds.
Similarly, Finnish higher education is treated as a priority. Its binary system of 20 universities and 26 polytechnics has enrolments of about 167,000 and 141,000 respectively: this in a country of only 5.3 million people. Education is perceived as a right and something the government should fully fund because students are seen as worthy recipients of support.
Finnish students have a high eventual completion rate: Elander reported that about 94 % of commencing students eventually completed one higher education programme or another.
Students are eligible for welfare payments in the form of a study grant (introduced in 1972) and housing supplement (1977) if living away from the family home. In fact, few Finnish students live with their parents: only 4%, the lowest rate in Europe, according to Eurostudent Project figures.
Parental income has no effect on student eligibility: students are eligible to receive a total of EUR500 (US$700) in welfare payments per month, comprising a study grant of EUR298 and EUR202 housing support. These sums are not repayable and students can also apply for a student loan of up to EUR300 per month.
They are even eligible for subsidised lunches (they pay about half price), almost free healthcare, discounted public transport fares and discounts for social and cultural activities such as theatres and museums. But academic progress is required to guarantee a continuous ride on the gravy train. Students with children (about 9%) can also get additional non-education support.
Elander said that generous as these sums seemed they were not sufficient for a student to live without recourse to paid employment: "Unfortunately, government support has not been adjusted to changes in the cost of living, and no allowance is made for the substantially higher costs that some students must meet, particularly those in the Helsinki region. Rents in many parts of central Helsinki, for example, are at least double those paid in many regional cities."
Students are also limited in how much they can earn before state study grants are reduced. "Students find themselves in a catch-22 situation," she said: "If they want to study, they must work to support themselves. If they work too much, it affects the welfare component of their income. Therefore they must work even longer hours, which in turn extends the time until they graduate."
The so-called 'underground economy' is less common in Finland than in many other countries so 'cash' jobs in the hospitality industry are not common.
Finnish students already tend to be older than students from many countries by the time they graduate, not only because of slow progress due to combining study with paid employment, but also because compulsory military service delays the commencement of most male students.
Military service intakes often occur in the middle of the academic year so many students opting for the minimum six months' training find that the start of their university studies is delayed by two academic years.
Despite the down side, it would seem Finnish students are far better off than many in other countries. In one sense, their families are also be better off although the state support to students is provided from the high levels of personal and value-added taxes that Finns pay.
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